It all started back in the mid-1970s with the advent of urethane finish on the lane beds. This finish replaced lacquer, which was highly flammable, but was much, much harder. Instantly, this made most earlier bowling balls obsolete. Even the top pros had trouble hooking the ball when a modest amount of lane oil was applied.
Bowling conditions are all about the coefficient of friction. An example would be: Which would hook more, a tennis ball or a ball bearing? Equipment manufacturers came up with the LT-48 urethane ball and other brands, which would grip the new lane finish. Bowlers once again could hook the ball, and with much more power. Plastic balls began to be the rage, but they, too, were difficult to control on a slick surface.
It was about this time that PBA star and Hall of Famer Don McCune began to experiment with "soaking" the plastics in MEK (methyl ethyl ketone), to soften the surface and gain more gripping power. Neither the ABC nor the PBA had rules in place at that time to prohibit soaking. When hardness regulations were instituted by both, they were set at 74-75 hardness on a Durometer scale.
The ball manufacturers duly paid attention. The race was on to develop new generations of balls, each more dynamic than the last. The first of the new balls was a Columbia named the "Shur-D." This ball barely passed the low limits. On cool days it would be 75 hardness, but in a warm center or after some frames, it got so soft, you could leave your fingerprints on the outer surface. It was banned from sanctioned play within a year. It was at this point that the ABC should have established much more stringent ball specifications and limits to the equipment manufacturers.
During the '80s, urethane balls became the norm, and manufacturers began experimenting with the weight blocks. Gone was the "pancake" block, which was located under the brand and allowed holes to be drilled and keep the ball in balance. All manufacturers hired engineers to design and build high-tech weight blocks, which would aid in the way a ball rolled down the lane and where it would hook. Scores were skyrocketing. Where was the ABC?
These high-tech balls hooked a lot. Bowlers were complaining to proprietors, who in turn were forced to apply more lane dressing. This fact, while it hurt lower average bowlers and anyone using balls older than 10 years, actually drove scores up again for the better players.
Where was the American Bowling Congress? The ABC's answer was to look at lane conditioning as the cause. In the '60s and '70s the number of 300 games bowled in the United States totaled about 3,000 for a season. Now it was approaching 25,000. The ABC either couldn't or wouldn't face the fact that the new balls were absorbing the lane dressing or moving it around.
If a few bowlers were bowling around the same place on the lane, that area would soon dry up, with the dressing either absorbed by the balls or shoved to the left and right. This created a condition for knowledgeable bowlers as effective as nailing down a 2-by-4 shim. Play the oil line and the ball will go to the pocket. Send the ball wide, and it will hit the dry area and go to the pocket. This is now known as a block. Blocking the lanes is illegal, if intentionally done, but routinely happens as the night wears on and is caused by this type of equipment.
ABC answered the resulting huge increase of honor scores by lane testing after the scores were bowled and disallowing all that were judged as bowled on an illegal condition. Probably 95 percent of the scores disallowed were bowled on a condition that was changed by the equipment used during the competition. Again the ABC decided that conditions were the problem and instituted the "System of Bowling." This required that lane dressing be applied to all parts of the lane, with heavier concentrations in the middle.
What were they thinking? This was nothing more than a block with a different name.
By the '90s, 300 games were approaching 30,000. The manufacturers, unencumbered by regulations, were really getting into it. Reactive resins were added to the urethane. This made the track on the ball "heat up." Let's think back to Columbia's Shur-D ball. When it heated up it was softer, right? Well, now only the track is heating up and is back to normal by the time it returns. Technology. A regular urethane ball when delivered reaches a temperature of 1,400 degrees when it first touches the lane.
Reactive balls reach 2,100 degrees. Remember the tennis ball and the ball bearing? The resulting scores have ruined the integrity of the game. Where is the ABC?
Today's dynamic surfaces, added to even more exotic weight blocks, are still creating havoc with scores. Ball makers are adding Mica chips to the resin to make the ball grab even more. What's next, steel studs? It's becoming commonplace to see 900 series. Last season someone averaged over 260. Where's the ABC?
Here's the new ABC thinking. "Let's make a new tough condition and call it a sport shot. We'll make the condition so difficult that only a very few will shoot 600 for the night." The regular bowlers can bowl on a recreational shot. Untold millions of dollars are being spent to convince everyone that this is the way to reduce scores.
This is just another attempt to cover up the real problem, which is 25 years of gross lack of attention to evolving equipment. Are there any real bowlers doing any thinking at the ABC? Who would want to go bowling knowing full well that a 200 game or a 600 series would be next to impossible?
It does not take a Rhodes scholar to find the solution to this problem. First, the ABC should start controlling equipment manufacturers. Naturally, technology will improve, but not at the expense of the game.
Second, the hardness of all bowling balls should be increased to at least 84-85 hardness. Most of the recent balls only have an effective life of a year or two anyway, so a smooth, inexpensive transition could be implemented. Most bowlers change their arsenal more often than that.
Third, minimum and maximum lane dressing specifications should be established with regards to the thickness of the lane dressing and its length and width. The amount of dressing on each board should be the same. Once all old balls are phased out, the condition will hold up. Mica or any other type of particles and any other additives to ball surfaces should be disallowed. Lane surface finishes will improve dramatically. Consistent lane conditioning should not be a problem, as nearly every proprietor has a lane-dressing machine. Bowlers would be able to play whatever line they wanted to.
The implementation of the above would bring the overall game nearly back to the '60s era, in scoring and integrity.
Around the lanes
The BPA Buffalo Beverage Miller Lite All Stars bowl today at Broadway at 2 p.m. . . . The Amateur Bowlers Association has a $1,000 first place tournament Sunday at Broadway with the first squad at 9 a.m. and finals at 4:30.
Dick Ciprich is a member of the Buffalo Bowling Association Hall of Fame, a former member of the PBA Tour and a member of the PBA Senior Tour. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.